‘The notorious stretch in Spitalfields was somewhere that boasts a murder on average once a month, of a murder in every house. And one house at least, a murder in every room.’
Laid out in 1674, Spitalfields was London’s premier silk weaving district. And by the 18th century Dorset Street was already looking ramshackle. In the 19th century–when the trade was fading away–rambling, dirty lodging houses dominated it. They even covered former gardens so the landlords could squeeze even more people into their accommodation.
The authorities left the inhabitants to their own devices. ‘Police officers go down it in pairs,’ the Mail added. ‘Hunger walks prowling in its alleyways, and the criminals of tomorrow are being bred there today.’
On the wall of the Ten Bells pub, across the road from Spitalfields Market. There’s a Victorian tiled mural depicting the area in the mid-18th century. Back then the area was at the height of its prosperity as London’s premier silk weaving district. One scene depicts a prosperous-looking gent and lady ‘visiting a weaver’s shop’; it shows them inspecting cloth.
Silk weaving was not the only industry in Spitalfields–Truman’s brewery had operated since 1669 and Spitalfields Market was expanding in the 18th century–however its fall from grace was a bitter blow for the neighbourhood. Some people who were out of work turned to crime and prostitution to keep a roof over their heads. Others starved to death.
A vivid description of crime and vice in Dorset Street is given in Ralph L. Finn’s 1963 memoir of a Jewish boyhood in the East End: ‘It was a street of whores. There is, I always feel, a subtle difference between a whore and a prostitute. At least we used to think so. Prozzies were younger, and more attractive. Whores were debauched old bags. It teemed with nasty characters–desperate, wicked, lecherous, razor-slashing hoodlums. No Jews lived there. There were pubs every few yards. Bawdy houses every few feet. It was peopled by roaring drunken fighting-mad killers.’
Many Irish settlers, fleeing the potato famine of the 1840s, arrived in the area in search of work. This put a massive burden on East End housing and as early as the 1830s there were reports of serious overcrowding.
In reaction to demand, lodging houses, including ones in Dorset Street, sprung up to provide for those needing places to live. These places offered accommodation nightly and frequented by those on the margins of society, including criminals and people who chose not to work.
Soon the accommodation in the alleys and courts became overrun with people. Disease spread in the claustrophobic atmosphere and residents turned to crime in order to meet ends meet.
Things got worse when the authorities started demolishing slums, which put pressure on the housing that remained. Merely serving the interests of the landlords who pushed up the rents. One police officer in Spitalfields in late 19th century said of the common lodging houses that ‘the landlords of these places are to my mind, greater criminals than the unfortunate wretches who have to live in them.’
Regardless of its reputation, it still came as an enormous shock. When what is accepted as the fifth and final murder committed by Jack the Ripper, a body was found in Miller’s Court, Dorset Street, on 9 November 1888.
Landlord John McCarthy could not overlook the fact his tenant, Mary Jane Kelly, was six weeks behind with her rent, and decided that it was time to see if Kelly would pay up. He instructed his assistant, Thomas Bowyer, to pay Kelly a visit before she left her room for the day. When Bowyer arrived at 13 Miller’s Court, he knocked on the door several times. Getting no answer, he rounded the corner of the yard to see a couple of glass windowpanes were broken. Reaching in through the broken window, he moved the curtain to see if she was home. The first thing he saw was what looked like two lumps of meat sitting on the bedside table. Looking in further, he spotted a bloody corpse, mangled beyond recognition, with parts strewn all over the blood-soaked bed.
If you visit Spitalfields today, you won’t find anywhere called Dorset Street. They renamed Dorset Street ‘Duval Street’ on 28 June 1904. In 1920, the Corporation of London purchased Spitalfields Market, and began major rebuilding, which included the demolition of the whole of the north side of Duval Street, including Miller’s Court. The new fruit market opened in 1928. Another new market development in the 1960s resulted in Duval Street becoming a lorry park for the market. The buildings on the south side of Dorset Street were redeveloped as a multi-storey car park in the 1960s. The north side was bounded by the London Fruit and Wool Exchange building, which in later years was used primarily as office space for small businesses and a storage warehouse for an import-export company.
SHOCKING TALES OF LONDON
Stories of poverty, violence, love and hope. Shocking Tales of London takes you on a walk-through London’s horrifying side with an absorbing collection of curious tales from one of the world’s greatest cities. This captivating book is packed with remarkable things you probably didn’t know about England’s capital city. https://amzn.to/3caRhXL
London Crime Fiction Books by Paul Asling
For those who seek a story of crime and love.
THESE BOOKS WILL MAKE YOU LAUGH, CRY, AND HAVE YOU GRIPPED THROUGHOUT. amzn.to/3l4aQ7h